Sam Asks: The Thing That Makes You Come Alive

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Me and Dad

On Friday, my father came into my classroom to tell my students about his Norwegian upbringing. He shared stories from his childhood, facts about his country, and even passed around a few wood carved trolls. Through it all, my students listened intently, asked wonderful questions, and absorbed what he was telling them. They were delighted by his accent and his larger than life presence.

But, no part of the presentation had them more captivated then when he read to them from a book of Norwegian folk tales. He held their attention as he acted out each story with enthusiastic facial expressions and spot on voice characterizations. They giggled and gasped, and at the end erupted into applause. The pure joy on their faces was priceless.

One student raised his hand and asked, “how did you get so good at reading like that?”

My father answered, “I have had a lot of practice, I read to my kids every night before they went to sleep.”

At this response, I could see that some of my students were surprised. As my father was packing to go, one little girl came up to me and wanted to know, “did your dad really read to you every night?”

“Yes he did,” I answered with a smile, “just like he did for you today.”

“Wow,” she breathed, “you are so lucky.”

As I looked at her awe-struck face, it was all I could do not to cry. Me? Lucky? Because my dad read to me?

Now, I am not so naive to think that all parents read to their children. I get enough parent letters about the 30 minutes of reading I assign each night to know that isn’t so. But, in my opinion, reading is a gift. There are so many people out there who have never been taught to read, who will never know the words of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, or even Dr. Seuss.

Somewhere along the way reading has gotten a reputation of being “boring,” a “chore,” an “assignment.” I have always read because I wanted to, not because I had to.

In my life, some of my most important life lessons have come from books. I have become who I am because of what I have seen in books that delight or disturb me. My best memories are of reading, being read to, and sharing literature.

I will always remember the book that started it all for me. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I read it for the first time in the 5th grade. I read it for the 100th time just last week. Up until I read Ella I had been read to. Stories had been pre-selected for me by parents and teachers, and I have to say that I LOVED them all. But, Ella Enchanted was different. I went into the bookstore with my mom to look for a book on my summer reading list. As she paid for a short stack of books at the register, I continued to browse. My fingers gently outlined the bindings. I read title after title, smiling to myself at how much I looked forward to reading them all! At last, my finger landed on a brownish spine that it has landed on so many times since. I gently removed it from the shelf and opened to the first page. I was already finished with the first chapter by the time my mother found me.  It was there, with that book that I found my voice as a reader. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that if it weren’t for my parents making reading a part of the fabric of our lives.

As I think back to the little girl in my class, the opening lines of The Great Gatsby come to mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. 

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.

Today I am reflecting on these words and have come to this conclusion:

My advantage in life has been having a father who read to me. If he hadn’t stayed up night after night reading “just one more page,” I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. I wouldn’t be out there every day trying to spark in other young minds the same love that has been sparked in me.

I had a professor in college who said to us, “I am here because I want to help you find your passion, the thing that makes you come alive. Find that. Do that. Know success.” I will never forget those words. I repeat them to my students, help them find their passion, show them that mine is reading. Teaching makes me come alive, and I never would have known that if it hadn’t been for my first teacher, my father, who read to me every night before bed.

So I suppose, dear readers, what I’d like to know from you is:

The book that started it all.

Your advantage.

The thing you do that makes you come alive.